Fire Season

So we’re on a slightly north-northwesterly heading at 10,500 feet somewhere between east of Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, Idaho, nearing Lake Pend Oreille. Smoke from the fires we believe to be west and northwest of us – northwest of Priest River, Idaho, and all around Spokane, Washington – has driven us this high and we’re nearly IFR, just above most of the smoke. We can’t see below, but occasionally Laurel gets a glimpse of the terrain, and the GPS shows us tracking a direct course to Sandpoint.

Suddenly Laurel says, “There’s a hole in the smoke. I see the lake. I see an airplane below us.” I take my eyes from the instruments, look down and see a twin engine airplane thousands of feet below, tracking westerly. Laurel calls out another twin. I find it, then watch as the first airplane drops close to the forested ridge line to the west … and dumps a load of fire retardant. The second airplane follows and does the same. Then I see the fire, wind whipping the flames in a southerly direction, towards the lakeside town of Bayview.

“Shite,” I think. “I’ve flown us into a TFR.”

What don’t you ever wanna get caught doing in the air? Bust Bravo Airspace? Discover witnesses after a low buzz job? Depart a perfectly good runway for the surrounding weeds at an FAA towered airport? How about, busting a TFR – a fire TFR. I’d imagine that busting a Presidential TFR could be worse – hell, if you failed to respond to the intercept aircraft, you might well be dead. But a fire TFR? Hoo boy. Explain that bugger to an angry FSDO weenie.

This happened on our trip to Sandpoint, Idaho, in the Super Cub on July 5, 2015. (To read more, look for our blog post on July 29, 2015: “OMG, Another Cross Country” – url: http://socalskies.com/omg-another-cross-country/ .) We had checked with every Flight Service Station along our route of flight and the only TFR’s were well west of Sandpoint. Yet, if a TFR pops up and you aren’t aware, and you fly through it, rotsa ruck. It’s still your fault.
We’ll let you know what happened in a while.

Once again – despite the Buffoon’s claims that global warming is “fake news” (Jaysus what an a-hole) – fire season has reared its ugly head and, once again, California makes national news as wildfires rage. Paradise, Thousand Oaks and Malibu are some of the latest places to gain fame – and we hope, sympathy – because fires burn, homes are destroyed, and people die.

Why does California burn? Well, much of the state is semi-arid, and the entire state, including the northern and mountainous regions, has endured years of drought. Semi-arid? Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language says:

semi-arid, adj (of a region, land, etc.) characterized by very little annual rainfall, usually from 10 to 20 in.

In our case, under SoCal Skies in sunny San Diego, that would be 10.34 inches per year. ‘Tain’t a lot.

There’s also the ever-present threat of Santa Ana winds, which we discussed in September’s blog. Santa Ana’s bring bone dry winds from the deserts over the mountains and through the mountain passes and valleys. The whipping winds dry out the already parched trees and bushes of our chaparral and coastal sage plant communities. Then to get the fire started, all you need is a source of ignition: a lightning strike, a downed powerline, a moron with a match. This time of year, Santa Ana’s tend to be a lot more common – and that’s why you’re hearing more about California wildfires.

We have three CDF (sorry, Cal Fire – why do this group keep changing its name?) Air Attack Bases in Southern California: San Bernardino (SBD), Hemet-Ryan, (HMT) and Ramona (RNM). Only one of them, RNM, has an Air Traffic Control Tower.

Generally, when the Air Attack base is operating in response to a fire, it’s a wise pilot who gets out of the way. Air Attack pilots and flight crews are dedicated professionals who willingly risk their lives on every mission they fly. If you’re practicing touch and goes at, say, Hemet, and the scout aircraft and water bombers fire up, it’s time to go to somewhere else. Tragically, there have been mid-air collisions with air attack bombers departing for or returning from a fire. Why would any sensible pilot not get the hell out of the airport environment when these valiant people are doing their dangerous jobs?

Ramona Airport’s number of annual operations doesn’t meet FAA’s minimum standards for a federal control tower. But it has a non-federal tower, today, because the County of San Diego decided that, with the number of air attack operations, it was important for all aircraft receive the benefit of air traffic control separation services. That decision was made after a couple of fatal mid-air collisions between air attack aircraft and GA pilots.
Even with the tower in operation (8am – 8pm local time), if I’m practicing at Ramona when an air attack operation commences, I’ll fly to another airport. It just makes sense. Doesn’t it?

Along with all the traditional hazards faced by brave air attack pilots, sky morons have become a larger and larger problem. Which sky morons? Why, let’s start with the drone-holes – those a-hole drone bozos who launch their camera-equipped kiddie toys so that they can get first-hand views of the horrors of a wildfire. Air attack operations have been halted on numerous occasions because some self-absorbed drone-hole just had to get a picture of a fire.

There are penalties for such negligence – only they’re insufficient. In my opinion, a drone-hole who causes an air attack operation to be suspended should, when caught, be strapped into a parachute and dropped into the middle of the fire he was observing.

There are also a-hole pilots who think, “Wouldn’t it be grand if I could get a look at a wildfire, get some pictures with my I-phone, and show them to all my a-hole friends?” These are the dummies who caused the introduction of fire TFR’s; the same pinheads whom you’ll find on freeways, slowing or stopping to look at an accident, or a nearby brush fire. They ought’a have targets on their backs.

Wouldn’t you think that, if there’s a wildfire and air attack operations are under way, sensible pilots would want to let the air attack flight personnel the opportunity to accomplish the mission? Apparently not. And their ignorance has caused a problem for law-abiding and sensible pilots.

If you fly through a fire TFR, you are solely responsible, and you flying privileges will be suspended – even if you have just contacted Flight Service Station requesting TFR information. If a TFR is declared over a fire along your route of flight, before it was available to Flight Service, it’s your fault, and you will be subjected to the ire of FAA.

So … what happened with Laurel and me on the way to Sandpoint? Well, after we landed at around 5 pm, we told our friends that we may have inadvertently flown through the Bayview Fire TFR. Another friend, Chris, a volunteer fireman in Sandpoint assured us that the TFR hadn’t been declared until 8pm that evening. We got lucky.
Don’t be a dope. Stay away from wildfires. Save your certificate and, maybe, someone else’s life.

Posted in Ramblings